How higher education fails adjuncts

The death of a longtime, part-time professor in Pittsburgh is gathering the attention nationwide.

Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct French professor, spent 25 years teaching French at Duquesne University. She died earlier this month from complications resulting from a massive heart attack, although she was also battling cancer. She had no health insurance, no heat in her home, and for the first time in 25 years, no job.

Last spring, Duquesne told Vojtko that it would not renew her teaching contract that paid her about $10,000 a year. Vojtko, who had very high medical bills due to her illness, could not afford to keep heating her home and had been sleeping in her office at the school. When the school discovered what she’d been doing, they asked her to leave.

In August, Vojtko contacted Daniel Kovalik, senior associate general counsel of United Steelworkers, the union that has been attempting to unionize the school’s 88 adjunct professors.

In an editorial in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last Wednesday, Kovalik painted a picture of what his friend’s last few weeks were like:

“She told me that she was under an incredible amount of stress,” Kovalik wrote. “She was receiving radiation therapy for the cancer that had just returned to her, she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity – a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself. The letter said that if she did not meet with the caseworker the following Monday, her case would be turned over to Orphans’ Court.”

The University released a statement following the editorial, saying that they offered Vojtko on-campus accommodations.

“She didn’t want charity,” Kovalik also wrote. “She thought that after working 25 years for Duquesne that she was owed a living wage and some sort of retirement and benefits.”

Compensation and treatment of adjunct professors has been a simmering issue since the early ’70s, when campuses began to see a shift from full-time to part-time faculty. According to a survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, these itinerant teachers make up a 75 percent of college instructors, with their average pay between $20,000 and $25,000 annually. They do no less work for each class than a tenure-track professor might, and usually have to teach many more courses per semester in order to make ends meet.

Most adjuncts are not unionized and few receive benefits. This is why colleges nationwide are increasingly curtailing adjunct hour workloads to avoid providing health care as required under the Affordable Care Act.

What happened to Vojtko and adjuncts all over the country is disgusting, especially when one compares the hundreds of thousands of dollars university presidents and coaches usually make. Adjunct professors should be better compensated, plain and simple. If education is really at the heart of what universities do, then there is absolutely no excuse for not putting the bulk of the resources into what happens in the classroom.

Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to

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